Stingrays smell blood in water
September 18, 2014
Pirtek NZRL National Premiership - Stingrays smell blood in water
Opportunities like this don't come along very often, but Counties Manukau coach Rod Ratu is trying to remain calm ahead of what could be a season-defining grand-final rematch against Pirtek NZRL National Premiership champions Akarana on Saturday.
With a loss already to their names this year, the titleholders teeter on the brink of elimination. Another defeat would be make their chances of taking a fifth straight crown very remote indeed.
And that must be a mouth-watering prospect for the Stingrays, who went unbeaten through the 2013 regular season, only to falter against their archrivals when it mattered.
Victory now would be a huge boost to their hopes of going all the way this time, but don't try telling Ra-tu that.
"This week could be our first big test," he says, after watching his side dispatch three opponents by an average of 55 points through the opening rounds.
"But, as staff, our focus is to stay focused on the things we need to do get the team out on the field and play well.
"Akarana have been in this position before and found a way to win. We're well aware that they will win the games they set their minds to, so we're not reading too much into this situation.
"Their history speaks for itself. We expect to see a very different team out there this week and a very different performance."
But Ratu also issued a veiled warning to the rest of the competition - we probably haven't seen the best of his players yet.
"We're travelling well, but it has required a bit of management from our part," he says. "Our boys are coming off a tough season in the Fox Memorial [club competition], and some of our top players and veterans have had to carry their teams through that.
"There are quite a few niggly injuries in the team and we've had to carefully monitor recovery, so we probably haven't started the campaign at 100%."
Fortunately, the Stingrays youngsters have proved more than capable of navigating through a schedule that has protected them from the top teams early on.
This encounter will end that soft run at just the right time, as they begin their build-up towards the post-season.
After their loss to Canterbury Bulls, Akarana weren't that convincing last week against Wellington Orcas and will need to lift their game against the rampant South Aucklanders at Ellerslie Domain.
Elsewhere, the unbeaten Bulls are at home to Wellington on Saturday, while the winless Northern Swords have perhaps their best remaining chance of success this season, when they host Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions.